Senate panel moves to strengthen Federal Protective Service

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 11:04 PM

Fed up with a rash of complaints about the Federal Protective Service, a Senate committee on Wednesday approved legislation designed to strengthen the agency charged with protecting 9,000 federal buildings.

The legislation would increase agency staffing by 500 positions over four years, with most of those assigned to law enforcement. Support and administrative personnel hired through the measure would be used to provide increased oversight of FPS contract guards.

The FPS has about 1,200 full-time employees and 15,000 contract guards. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly reported serious problems with the agency's ability to secure government facilities.

The problems are so serious that the agency's "mission is now in grave peril," Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said during the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting.

"The GAO found a seriously dysfunctional agency that lacked much, if any, focus or strategy for accomplishing its mission," he said in a prepared statement. "GAO investigators found guards sleeping on the job, and investigators successfully smuggled bomb-making ingredients past security to build an explosive device and move about the building undetected. GAO concluded that contract guards lacked adequate training, FPS personnel suffered from low morale, oversight of the contract guards was poor, and many of the standards that guide federal building security and guard behavior were outdated."

The bill, which passed on a unanimous voice vote, would grant FPS officers retirement benefits similar to other federal law enforcement personnel. It does not federalize the contractors.

Contract guards, however, presumably would become more professional because of provisions in the legislation. Minimum initial training requirements would be doubled, to at least 80 hours, and the amount of training provided directly by FPS or monitored by the agency would increase to 25 percent, from 10 percent.

The legislation now goes to the full Senate. The House has not acted on the matter. The FPS did not respond to a request for comment.

One upsetting finding by GAO was that its investigators were able to sneak bomb materials undetected into every one of 10 selected high-security federal facilities. The legislation would more than double the number of FPS canine explosives teams and authorize a pilot program to test advanced imaging technology - similar to that used by airport screeners - at three federal facilities.

Citing GAO and Department of Homeland Security inspector general reports, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the committee's ranking Republican, noted "pervasive security gaps, lax oversight, inadequate training and systemic operational flaws" and called the FPS "a disaster waiting to happen."

She made her point by listing examples from the investigations that she said paint "a dangerous picture":

l "A majority of FPS contract guards reviewed by GAO lacked mandatory training. Investigators found some FPS contract guards had not been trained to operate metal detectors and X-ray equipment. Others had no CPR, first-aid or firearms training. All told, GAO found that 62 percent of the FPS contract guards reviewed lacked valid certifications in one or more of these areas.

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